8 Nov 2015
“A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” (Mark 12:42) In the name …
Last weekend for Halloween a new book came out by Stacy Schiff on the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. In that book she writes about the fact that everyone who confessed to being a witch was spared. Only those who claimed innocence were executed. It was not the accused person’s place to determine innocence or guilt – that responsibility belonged only to the authorities. The church and the government of that day could forgive the contrivance of witchcraft, but they could not forgive anyone who dared to challenge their own authority.
This weekend the movie Spotlight was released. It’s based on the investigative-reporters of the Boston Globe newspaper who uncovered the clergy sex abuse scandal. The review of the movie mentions that it is not only about the reporters and the terrible atrocities they uncovered. The movie delves into how the media resisted investigating, how the police often turned the other way, and how even parents of victims did not push the issue all because the church was involved. People thought they were helping the church by not going public. And the church encouraged this deference because her authority was not to be questioned.
I ordered through our Tilton Library a copy of The Vatican Prophecies, which arrived this past week. The book was a disappointment. Way too superstitious for my tastes, and way too many devils and weird end-time prophecies. A lot of the content was based on secret revelations and secret archives. People who live constantly with secrets start seeing hidden messages and conspiracies everywhere. In the early church this was called the heresy of Gnosticism and it was the exact opposite of the public gospel. I also found worrisome the constant refrain that all of these mystical experiences were judged authentic only if they agreed with the church authorities. They were condemned as evil or psychotic if they dared to disagree. There’s even a directive shared among all their bishops that states explicitly that a vision or sign is authentic if the person displays “docility toward ecclesiastical authority.” Rock the boat, in other words, and it’s judged diabolical.
If this were the case, then most all of the Jewish prophets would have to be rejected. They challenged both king and priest. In today’s Lesson, as one such example, we encounter Elijah the prophet. King Ahab and his wife Jezebel hated this man. They tried to assassinate him. But the prophet was tasked by God to be a thorn in the side of the king or the religion when they went astray. If every word they spoke had to pass the test of “docility,” there would be no Old Testament prophets. Why would we imagine the church is so much different? The obvious answer could be that the church is Christ. Well, in the Old Testament Israel and Temple were the embodiment of God.
But even so, would the church as Christ encourage “docility”? I don’t think so. When Jesus saw the power and privilege that accompanied religion, He struck back, and that’s in plain view in today’s Gospel selection. When it was accepted without question that the Messiah would be a descendent of King David, thus tying the Messiah in with warfare, conquest, power and might, Jesus asked a simple question based on Psalm 110. If David says in the Psalm, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand,’” then how can the Messiah be David’s son? Jesus was not afraid to question what others presumed. We’re now reaching the point in Mark’s Gospel where confusion and opposition to Jesus will become the norm. This is the last reference in the Gospel to public approval. When Jesus challenges the authorities who were smug in their power and position, the Bible tells us today that “the large crowd was listening to him with delight.” (Mark 12:37)
On the very grounds of the Jerusalem Temple, Jesus teaches the Passover crowds gathered from all over the world that they need to beware of religious leaders who use religion to gain prestige and privilege for themselves. He ties this in with a condemnation of lavish religious displays. Jesus is surrounded by a glorious temple built by King Herod. It was extravagant even by ancient Roman standards. Its priesthood sat at the top of society. But amid all of this grandeur, all of these things and people that inspired awe in so many others, Jesus takes notice of none of it. Instead, Jesus’ eye is caught by a poor widow who drops a penny into the Temple collection box.
A lot of times I’ll hear this story told as a commendation of such giving. The woman’s motive is pure and righteous, and it is hoped she is blessed by God for her complete trust in Him. But the story seems to convey Jesus’ anger with an institution that would expect such kinds of sacrifice. For what? To erect grander buildings? To stage more elaborate sacrifices? To Jesus, are these the kinds of things that praise God? The widow gave everything that she had to live on, and for her trust in God she is praised, but for an institution that encouraged such a practice, Jesus has nothing but condemnation. “They devour widows’ houses,” He says. A bit more gold in the Temple does not justify a poor old woman going hungry that night. Jesus called the religious authorities to task because they thought the God of everything was more impressed with finery than with charity. Jesus did not let what was called sacred and holy stop Him from pointing out what was wrong. This is the example of Jesus and it should be the example of Jesus’ church.
We are stewards of the church. This is a privilege of our democracy. We need to provide for her work and services. We need to share what God has given us. We need to be the hands to do His work. We need to have hearts moved by charity so that we can help his people. And as stewards we also need to be the church’s conscience so that we help what is good, but also correct what is not. That Jesus may guide us as the stewards of His church, for this we pray in His name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo